Reconsidering Requirements for Elders

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The goal of the church of Christ is to glorify God in all that we do (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:31). To do this most effectively we need to be unified and we need to have our best men leading the way. Therefore, though we ought not to be divisive, we should open the eldership to as many men as possible. We must not erect boundaries where none exist. Of course there are boundaries worth defending (cf. Galatians 2:11-14; Titus 1:9-13) and the purity of the eldership is one of those boundaries. It must be maintained through a rigorous testing process (cf. 1 Timothy 3:1; 5:22-25) and public rebuke when necessary (1 Timothy 5:19-21). Therefore, the plea to broaden the eldership is not a plea to accept unqualified men into the office. This is a call to reexamine our traditional interpretations of those qualifications which most often hinder men from becoming elders, namely, being the husband of one wife and having believing children.

Based on 1 Timothy 3:2, our tradition has required elders to be married men. More conservative circles have even required him to be married only once. But does 1 Timothy 3:2 require marriage at all? It appears so, but then again, Romans 16:16 appears to require that we greet one another with a kiss. It is commonly agreed that Paul does not require Christians to practice the kiss; instead he regulates a previously existing custom. He did not command the kiss (they already did that), only that their kiss be holy. This same reasoning can readily be applied to being the husband of one wife. Then, as now, it is assumed that anyone old enough to be considered an “elder”—the Greek word presbuteros literally means “an older man”—will already be married. If this is the case then Paul does not command marriage, he merely regulates an already existing legitimate marriage. Paul wants him to be faithful to the wife he already has. He requires what the Greek phrase literally means, that an elder be a “one woman kind of man.” To require marriage would be strange indeed. Requiring marriage, for Paul, would be equivalent to requiring increased distraction, anxiety, and divided devotion (1 Corinthians 7:32-35).

Another traditional impediment to a man’s appointment is the requirement that he have believing children (Titus 1:6). Based on this verse our tradition has required that a man have at least one child who is a Christian. More conservative circles have even required that he have more than one child and that they all be Christians. But does Titus 1:6 require that his children be Christians? The word translated “believing” is pista. The word can mean “believing,” i.e. Christian (1 Timothy 6:2), or it can mean faithful/trustworthy (Revelation 1:5). Context must determine its translation. There is a helpful passage in 1 Timothy 3 that is unmistakably parallel to Titus 1:6. “He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive” (1 Timothy 3:4). The parallelism is clearer in the original language. “Children are believers” is tekna echon pista. “Keeping his children submissive” is tekna echonta hupotage. The parallel shows that to have pista children is to have children who are hupotage. Taken like this we ought to understand the latter end of Titus 1:6 as explaining what comes before. “If . . . his children are pista, [in other words, if they are] not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination [anupotakta].” Another important thing to consider is the purpose of this requirement. Paul does not relate this qualification to the man’s ability to convert unbelievers; rather, he says it concerns his ability to manage the household of God. “For if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?” (1 Timothy 3:5).

If these considerations were taken seriously we would be able to broaden elderships in many places. Good men everywhere are warming our pews because, by no fault of their own, they are unable to get married. Strong leaders are kept from being the shepherds of God’s precious sheep because one or more of their children decided to leave the Lord. A church rarely grows beyond its leaders. Congregations all over are shackled to ho-hum Christianity because the men who have the ability to break their bonds are in chains themselves. We need to free our mentors. We need to pass the shepherd’s staff to more men who are eager to give their lives for the sheep.

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